Udacity and Implications for Higher Ed

Lynn ZimmermannBy Lynn Zimmerman
Editor, Teacher Education

On May 7, 2012, Dick Gordon aired an interview with Sebastian Thrun and David Evans called Udacity: Teaching Online, an online university that came about almost by chance. Although The Story does not air on my NPR station, thanks to modern technology, namely the iPod and podcasts, I was able to download this story and listen to it two months later.

Thrun is Google’s vice president and is recognized as a pioneer in artificial intelligence and robotics. He was a tenured professor at Stanford when his story began. Fall 2011, Thrun decided to make his graduate level AI course, normally taught in a lecture hall to about 200 students, available online for free. He wanted to try to reach a larger audience. He sent out one email announcement. Much to his surprise 160,000 students from all over the world enrolled, and 23,000 completed the course. Thrun was gratified that his experiment was so successful, that free quality education could reach anyone who wanted it.

Sebastian Thrun

During the semester, Thrun had to mend some fences with the administration at Stanford. He had made this decision on his own, and they were concerned about having the Stanford name on certificates he had promised completers. They finally compromised that completers would receive a “statement of accomplishment” from Thrun, a private individual but affiliated with Stanford. So began Udacity, which offers STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) courses that students can take for free. For a fee they can take tests that certify their knowledge. Although there have been bumps along the way, Thrun says that he cannot imagine teaching any other way. William Bennet, in an interview with Thrun for CNN, “asked Thrun whether his enterprise and others like it will be the end of higher education as we know it — exclusive enclaves for a limited number of students at high tuitions? ‘I think it’s the beginning of higher education,’ Thrun replied. ‘It’s the beginning of higher education for everybody.'”

Gordon commented that the development of free online education seems exciting and terrifying for educators and asked what it meant for traditional schooling. If students can take the best courses from the best professors online for free, why pay to go to a building anymore? Thrun told him that he was asking the wrong question. This model is a different model, a different medium. Thrun said that students tend to be enthusiastic about the free online offerings and that is who educators should listen to. He further explained that his model goes beyond recorded lectures. Students are actively engaged in problem solving activities with guidance from the professor. He does not see it as a threat to traditional education but as a way to reach more students. Evans, a professor at the University of Virginia, added that the students often take on the role of “expert” by answering questions that other students have, shifting some of the responsibility of teaching and learning from the instructor to the students. Evans pointed out that by moving large lecture courses to the online medium, faculty are freed up for other [unspecified] things.

Thrun went on to say that the flaw in higher education is the notion of a degree. The traditional model of getting a degree at a specific time in your life and being finished with education no longer works. People must be lifelong learners. He said that people do not need degrees as much as they need continual learning. In order to do this, the educational process must be flexible. People with full-time jobs cannot take six months off to take courses.

The other part of Gordon’s question — that it seems both exciting and terrifying for educators — also needs to be addressed. Educators, like everyone else, are concerned about change. Most want to improve their students’ learning, and some are anxious to find new ways of doing this while others are resistant to change. However, a larger concern is not the instructors but the institution of education itself and how institutions  of education interpret their roles. Education is following more of a business model in today’s economic climate, focusing on the bottom line. Administrators who see the success of entities such as Udacity and edX may make decisions that are guided more by monetary considerations rather than what is in the best interests of their students. They may convert to the online model without giving sufficient consideration to the problem of creating and maintaining an effective learning environment that follows best practices. It seems that higher education, as an institution, tends to have an all-or-nothing mentality that fails to recognize students as individual learners.

Should we tear down the walls? I don’t think so. If we do, we run the risk of doing exactly what education has done for so many years — offer only one way of learning to a widely diverse group of learners.

4 Responses

  1. The idea that you get a degree and just stop learning developed somewhere but has never really been true. Sure, you can do that — to your detriment. I would argue that Thrun has set up a straw man here.

    A degree should and does in most cases indicate a certain level of learning, of knowledge and skill in applying that knowledge. It’s parallel to a tradesperson becoming an journeyman or master. It provides a platform for further development in the so-called real world.

    For those who become professors, the pressure to publish prevents them from just leaning on their degrees and learning nothing new.

    So, let’s put aside this false concept and look at the developments in education without a distorting lens.

  2. People around the world are hungry for learning. Mostly, it’s too costly. Either you’re here in the U. S. and are barely getting by because of the recession (also true in a number of other countries), or you’re in a place where access to education is beyond the means of most of the population. These developments (e.g. Udacity) presage something truly huge that’s coming much faster than most realize.

    It’s coming so fast that we may get off the track and lose our way. The idea of free STEM courses gives me pause. Why? Because STEM mostly means science to many people. Science courses absolutely must teach the nature of science and not just a bunch of verbiage and formulas. To do so, they must engage students in investigating the real world, of finding stuff they don’t know the answer to ahead of time, of reflecting on the data being collected and their meaning.

    You can find many ways to do this. Few are free, and those are either limited in scope or inferior in quality.

    Without a true understanding of what science is, these courses will only fill heads with stuffing. It’s an oldie but goodie by Richard Feynman, and you may have read it. If you haven’t, here’s a web address for you: http://v.cx/2010/04/feynman-brazil-education. It illustrates what happens if you learn out of context and without the crucial element of understanding.

    • Harry, good point re science in real-world or natural context. I don’t think the issue is either/or. We need to remember that even while a course is completely online, the students and teachers are still on the ground and in the real world. Thus, anytime-anywhere doesn’t necessarily mean completely virtual. That is, students can conduct real-world, hands-on experiments wherever they are. This means that students are on the ground in Paris, Beijing, Philadelphia, and Papeete but online when it comes to sharing and discussing their research activities and results. In other words, the world is the classroom, and it’s even more real than a classroom could ever be.

  3. Should we tear down the walls?

    I’ve seen many businesses rocket to success and then fall to the Darwinian nature of the market. Only the fittest survive. It will happen to our colleges and universities. Adapt or die.

    I worked at Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) in its heyday. I left while its trajectory was still upward but decelerating. I watched from the sidelines as it succumbed to a lack of fitness. I’ve seen many other not-so-huge businesses grow and falter. When change comes, as the PC came to challenge DEC, you cannot hold it back.

    Change is coming to higher education earlier than to K-12 education. High tuition costs, high costs of living away from home, and sometimes mediocre teaching at even the better institutions (oddly, lowly community colleges often have better learning) all are contributing to the push side of the equation. The pull side comes from new technologies and entrepreneurs (whether for-profit or non-profit) who see opportunities to deliver a better product for less cost.

    We will not tear down the walls. They will fall of their own weight having been undercut by online learning technology eventually outperforming the lecture hall. We could well see it by the next decade if not earlier.

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